“Shall we playe the good girles”: Playing Girls, Performing Girlhood on Early Modern Stages

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This essay investigates the extent to which girlhood functions as a queer category in two theatrical representations of schoolgirls in early seventeenth-century England. It focuses on the depictions of schoolgirls in the anonymous The Wit of a Woman (1604), written for the all-male stage of the professional theatre, and in Robert White’s masque, Cupid’s Banishment (1617), performed by the young Ladies of Deptford Hall before Queen Anna of Denmark, to examine the intersections of age, gender, sexuality and education in early modern concepts of girlhood. Situating these plays within wider debates about female education and the history of the contested role of performance in the schooling of early modern girls, it argues that they deploy the category of girlhood to demonstrate the subversive potential of educating girls. Yet, this essay proposes, these plays simultaneously reveal the potential agency of young women who manipulate girlhood to claim their distinct sexual, aged and gendered states as girls. It argues that early modern girlhood is a state that might be performed by young women to disrupt normative expectations of feminine behaviour and desire. Placing dramatic representations of schoolgirls and the experiences of schoolgirls on the early modern stage side by side, this essay demonstrates that the schoolroom and performance are sites in which this transgressive potential is realised.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-100
Number of pages28
JournalRenaissance Drama
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Apr 2016


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